When destiny knocks

JON CARDINELLI, in Business Day Sport Monthly, speaks to Eddie Jones, who says the Webb Ellis Cup will go to the team that embraces the event the most.

Eddie Jones wears a knowing smile and his eyebrow is arching into the stratosphere. ‘It’s all theatre mate,’ he says of the often complicated relationship between a top rugby coach and the media.

There’s nothing simple about his statement, and nothing in his countenance that suggests international rugby is a game played exclusively between the four white lines. The plot thickens as Jones delves into the game behind the game, detailing the manipulation that’s integral to a World Cup-winning template.

Jones is well versed in the language of pressure, having coached the Wallabies to a World Cup final in 2003 and serving as technical adviser to Jake White during the Springboks’ 2007 campaign. He knows what it takes to win rugby’s greatest prize, and is at pains to stress that artful execution is essential on and off the field.

It was in the build-up to the 2003 quarter-final against Scotland that Jones and his captain George Gregan sought to sell their own brand of drama. While the press decried the Wallabies’ mediocre form, Jones and Gregan insisted that the performances during the pool stage were of the highest possible standard.

They used the same rhetoric ahead of the semi-final against the All Blacks, and again in the lead-up to the final against England. Jones says that this expert management of the external factors ensured that the pressure within the team was minimalised.

That final went to extra time, and because the Wallabies were younger and fitter, Jones believed they would win. He instructed his charges to play for field position and apply the pressure until England cracked. He then watched in despair as the English used the self-same tactics to set Jonny Wilkinson up for a championship-winning drop goal.

‘After the game you just feel so deflated,’ he says. ‘You forget about everything that’s come before. You’ve failed. You haven’t done the job you were supposed to do. It’s really hard to pick yourself up.’

Little did Jones know that the denouement of that 2003 instalment would serve as an inciting act in the great epic that is his coaching career. Jones would draw on his experiences, good and bad, while working for the Boks, and by the final act of 2007 his story would reach a fitting climax.

‘I remember sitting in the grandstand with Jake towards the end of that final in Paris,’ recalls Jones. ‘The energy inside the ground was incredible; 80 000 people were screaming and what seemed like a million light bulbs were flashing. Mate, nothing will ever beat that feeling.’

White accepted due plaudits but was quick to bring Jones to the curtain call. The Australian’s experience had proved invaluable to the Boks’ preparations, and ultimately shaped South Africa’s performances on rugby’s greatest stage.

The biggest lesson that Jones took from the 2003 competition was that a team needed to win all seven of their matches – and that the quarter-final was the most important match. This was the point where a high-ranked team met a side ranked between sixth and 10th in the world. It was a paradox, a game where the high-ranked side was expected to win comfortably but could just as easily lose if it went into the clash with a complacent mindset.

White and Jones left nothing to chance. They sat down with the senior players and looked at the failures and successes of past tournaments. They knew that the Boks couldn’t afford to take that quarter-final against Fiji lightly.

It was after the 36-0 dismantling of England that the Boks believed they could win the tournament. Then there was a telling moment in Marseilles where, after watching the All Blacks lose to France on television, the players and coaches poured into the hotel lobby to chat about what the result could mean for their own chances. The next day, Fiji were competitive for 60 minutes before the Boks shut them out and secured their place in the semi-finals.

‘Those 24 hours were huge in the context of the tournament,’ says Jones. ‘From the moment the All Blacks were knocked out to the final whistle of our own quarter-final, there was a special energy surrounding the Bok team. After they beat Fiji you got the feeling that the World Cup was the Boks’ to lose.’

There’s a feeling among South Africans that if the Boks follow the script of 2007 they will enjoy similar success at the 2011 tournament. Peter de Villiers has opted for a game plan that strongly resembles the 2007 blueprint, and followed White’s lead by sending his World Cup squad to a training camp while a dirt-tracker team toured Australasia in the Tri-Nations.

Jones concedes that the congested calendar prescribes the careful management of senior players, and given that the regional coaches refused to play ball during Super Rugby, De Villiers was always going to rest the top brass over the Tri-Nations. While Jones agrees that this was necessary, he’s reluctant to categorically state that this is the course of action that will ensure the Boks peak at the 2011 World Cup.

White’s blueprint maximised the Boks’ traditional strengths, but was also formulated to suit the laws of the time. De Villiers may boast a host of players who won the 2007 tournament, but as Jones suggests, the coaches and collective haven’t progressed in terms of strategy and tactics. The results of the 2010 Tri-Nations, where a full-strength Bok  side lost five out of six Tests, substantiate the argument that De Villiers’ side is operating on outdated systems.

White’s shrewd selections also played an influential role. He travelled to that 2007 tournament with a contingency plan for each first-choice player. When Jean de Villiers tore his bicep in the opening game against Samoa, Frans Steyn stepped in to perform a similar role at No 12. Because of great planning, White could trade like for like. Because of bad planning, De Villiers won’t have that luxury. ‘The squad of 30 was known long beforehand in 2007, and the selectors haven’t had the same foresight this time round,’ says Jones.

The hype around a likely semi-final meeting with the All Blacks has been building since the Super Rugby season. An upset is unlikely. New Zealand haven’t lost to South Africa in Auckland since 1937, and dealt the Boks a telling psychological blow when they hammered them 32-12 at Eden Park in 2010.

There’s no rugby reason why the All Blacks shouldn’t win the World Cup. Nevertheless, they do have a tendency to lose big games, and New Zealanders and South Africans alike will be asking the same questions ahead of this probable semi-final. Will that winning game plan be altered to ensure they succeed where the last five teams have failed?

In July, reports from New Zealand confirmed that flyhalf Dan Carter had been practising his drop kicking with a view to the World Cup. While the All Blacks have struck a perfect balance between the kicking and running game over the past two seasons, the drop goal has never been part of their repertoire. Jones says that for the All Blacks to win the World Cup, they will need to play All Blacks rugby. Drop goals aren’t going to bring them glory.

‘New Zealand teams that think a lot usually don’t play that well. They’re a physical, athletic side that have beaten teams for generations by playing a particular type of game. When they try to get too tactically smart, they go into themselves – and we’ve seen that happen at the World Cup. There’s a difference between being tactically adaptable and tactically dependent. You don’t want to be adjusting your game plan right before a World Cup. You have to stick to what’s embedded in your DNA.’

Smart management of the external factors is also going to be crucial to the All Blacks’ cause. The hype and pressure they experience before every global tournament will be magnified given this particular World Cup will play out in New Zealand.

‘The All Blacks will feel it more because they’re at home,’ says Jones, who orchestrated one of the great victories against New Zealand in the 2003 semi-final. ‘You have to embrace the pressure, you have to manage it. You can use the pressure of the situation to your advantage, just as George [Gregan] did at Australia’s home World Cup in 2003.

‘I’m sure Graham Henry will be aware of that. As the head coach you need to lead the strategy and find a way to capture the attention of the media without giving too much away.’

It’s a statement that highlights a weakness in the Boks’ game. De Villiers’ outlandish and controversial public utterances make him a magnet for controversy, and his press conference gaffes often serve to increase the pressure on the players. It’s the last thing the Boks will need before a big game.

All three Sanzar nations remain strong contenders, but it will take more than athletic ability to win the 2011 title. As Jones suggests, no team can succeed unless they embrace the external pressure and use it to their advantage. The side that takes an active role in writing its own story will be the side standing at the final curtain call.

– This article first appeared in the September issue of Business Day Sport Monthly.